Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Seeing Auschwitz & the Salt Mine Again, Poland

I went to Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine when I went to Krakow in 2010.  While I knew that my family wanted to visit both I wasn't really looking forward to it.  Don't get me wrong, they are both must-do's when you come to Poland.  It's just that I had already seen them.  Especially Auschwitz.

After you've been there you can't really say that you've had a good day, in the traditional sense.  It is such a powerful experience that it leaves you kind of spent afterwards.

Well I was wrong.  Both places have made changes since the last time I was there that I didn't feel like I was seeing everything for a second time.

Auschwitz was different because the last time I was there was in the middle of winter and the snow gave it a different vibe.  This time the tour was conducted with headsets so it was easier to catch everything that the guide had to say.  But the biggest difference was that we saw so much more of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  Last time we only spent, maybe, 30 minutes at Birkenau.  This time we were there for almost two hours.  Perhaps they shortened the tour last time due to the cold.

The salt mine too now used headsets for the tour.  There have been some enhancements and there was actually much more to see this time than there was before.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Kraków Visit

We made it to Kraków, Poland today.  We took the Student Agency bus to Ostrava and from there caught a different bus to Kraków.  All told it took about seven hours to get here.  We rented a big apartment off of the main square and since we have plenty of room, Claudia and Tünde came along too.

Currently there is a Jarhmark going on to celebrate Saint Michal so my parents get to see another market with all of the arts & crafts and food.

The plan over the next few days is to take in the city and also visit Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  And of course, we have to visit a milk bar at some point.

Tünde likes the horses and carriages around the main square.  At some point I'm sure she'll get to go for a ride.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

A1 Language Exam

July 1st was my five year anniversary in Czechland and as of then I've been eligible to apply for permanent residency.  In order to apply I am required to pass a basic Czech language exam.  Unfortunately, I've been so busy with work, and with my family's visit, that I haven't had the time to take the exam.  On Monday, everyone left for Budapest for five days which gave me the opportunity to catch up with things at work and to take my language exam.

Voucher for free exam
Last week, I had to go to the foreign ministry to pick up a voucher for the exam.  All applicants are entitled to take the exam one time for free.  If you don't pass the exam the first time then you have to pay 1,500 Kč (~$75) for each retry. 

For permanent residency you only have to pass the A1 level.  This means that a person can handle simple conversation about common everyday situations concerning oneself, one's place of residence, property, relatives and acquaintances when:
  • visiting public institutions, post offices, shopping, ordering services or food;
  • dealing with officials, health care providers;
  • handling accommodation and public transportation 
A1 means that you have basic survival Czech.

The first part of the exam covers reading, listening and writing.  The reading portion takes 20 minutes and you have to answer multiple choice questions.  The listening comprehension part last about 35 minutes.  You hear quick conversations and have to answer multiple choice questions.  This was the most difficult part for me.  Then comes the written portion which lasts for 15 minutes.  You are given a theme to write about.

If you successfully pass these three parts then you can take the verbal portion.  I had to sit one-to-one with the examiner for about 5 minutes and hold a conversation about how long I had been in the country, where I was from, what I liked about the Czech Republic, etc. 

My official A1 certificate
I passed!!  My Czech is better than A1 but I was still nervous about the exam because I had to pass it.  If I apply for Czech citizenship in five years then I will have to take the B1 exam which will be much more difficult. 

Now I just need to get notarized copies of my paperwork and submit everything to the foreign ministry.  Hopefully I can find the time and get an appointment in November.

Update:  I applied in December.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Brno Underground

Zelný trh (the cabbage market) is one of Brno's oldest city squares.  Prior to receiving its current name in the 15th century, it used to be called the Upper Market back in the 13th century. 

Under the square are Baroque era cellars that were primarily used to brew beer, store food, age wine barrels and as a refuge during war.  Basically a tiny underground city.

In 2009 there was a major renovation, financed by the city and the EU, to preserve the labyrinth under the square.  The underground opened to the public in April 2011 and there are daily guided group tours. 

The tour lasts 45 minutes as you walk through the 700 year old tunnels which are 7 to 8 meters (23 - 26 feet) under the square.  The tours are in Czech but there are audio guides available in other languages.

600 Year Old Wine Cellar

On Friday night we went to dinner at U Královny Elišky.  This wine cellar, next to the Basilica Minor and monastery, was established in 1323 by Queen Dowager Eliška Rejčka.  It's not every day that you go to eat in a 600 year old wine cellar.  Well actually, around 691 years old but who's counting?   

After WWII, the Czechoslovak government used the place for storage.  It was renovated and in 1965 it became a wine cellar again and in the 80's it was also a disco.  There's still a wine press here that dates back to 1711.

We were joined by Claudia, Helenka and Fero.  Everything was wonderful.  For most of the evening we had the place all to ourselves.

Fero knows the musicians who normally play there on Saturday nights, and you just happen to be part of the Brno Philharmonic.  Fero did me a favor and got the guys to play on Friday night instead.  So we were pretty much serenaded by our own personal master musicians.  It was a really great evening.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Olomouc Day Trip

Olomouc main train station
On Thursday we headed off to Olomouc for the day.  This is one of my favorite towns in Czechland.

I describe it as a mini-Prague, without all of the bloody tourists. 

Plague column
There is so much to see in one day.  There's the beautiful plague column, that's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all of the fountains, the astronomical clock, the bells at St. Michal's church, and St. Wenceslas cathedral.
Mom & me at the turtle fountain

And no visit to Olomouc is ever complete without having some of the stinky cheese.

I think that this so far has been one of my parents' favorite cities so far.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Day Tour of Bratislava

Inside the main train station
On Wednesday we took a day trip to Slovakia so that my family could see Bratislava.

We did one of the free walking tours of the city which was really well done.  It lasts about 2.5 hours and you cover a good bit of the city.  

Bratislava's National Theatre

I've done "Bratsville" so many times that I could probably give the tour myself but I'll leave that to the professionals.

Afterwards, we for lunch at my favorite hidden place in town.  Eiko and Liz turned me on to Prašná Bašta and their wonderful garden dining area when they still lived here.  The place was built back in the 16th century while the facade was renovated in the 17th century and the interior was done in the 18th.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Olešnice, Czech Republic

 I've never heard of Olešnice but my mom has.  She saw a TV program about festivals in the Czech Republic, or something, where fabric is dyed with indigo.  I asked around but none of my colleagues had heard about it either so I had to do a bit of digging on the Internet.

Olešnice is a small village in Moravia with a population of +1,700 people.  The village is about an hour away from Brno by bus.  Apparently there is some good skiing near Olešnice. 

St. Lawrence Church was consecrated in 1426.  It sits on the remains of a wooden church built in 1391 by the descendants of settlers originally from Germany.  The tower and facade were renovated in 2004.

The Danzinger Shop

The Danzinger Blueprint workshop is a family business that dates back to 1816.  The production methods have been unchanged since 1849.

It's possible to take a 45-minute tour of the production area to see how how fabric is dyed indigo blue and the designs are stenciled.

The tour was in Czech but it was possible to follow along.  The family patriarch explained that during socialism, the family had to dismantle some of the equipment and bury it so that it would not get confiscated by the state.

Additions to mom's souvenir collection

The shop has all kinds of nifty things for sale which all make really great souvenirs.  My mom and aunt both picked up a few gifts for people back home.